Dairy Sheep Breeds
There are not many sheep breeds out there and if you are in the US and looking for dairy sheep, you will find that you have a very small selection to choose from. Below I will list the most popular breeds of Dairy Sheep as well as non-dairy breeds of sheep that one may try if it is too difficult to find a Dairy breed.
Dairy Sheep Breeds
East Friesian Sheep - The East Friesian is THE dairy sheep in the US. They are the sheep with the highest milk production and longest lactation that is available to those interested in milking sheep in the US. They are a wool breed. They average around 2 lambs per lambing and can produce 500 to 700 kg of milk per lactation period. While they are excellent for milk production, both adults and lambs can be considered quite fragile and they need specialized care. Ewes can be crossed with a meat breed for hardier faster growing lambs. Using this method, one can have the milk from the ewes and meat from the lambs. Concentrations of East Friesian breeders seem to be located in IN the Upper Midwest especially in Wisconsin and also New York and Parts of New England. They are a difficult breed to come by in other parts of the country.
Lacaune Sheep - The Lacaune is a French bread that is probably the second most common dairy sheep in the US. Lacaune ewes produce milk with higher total solids than the East Friesians, but in slightly less volume.The sheep of the Lacaune breed produce the milk which is responsible for the famous Roquefort cheese. The Lacaune dairy sheep is a wool breed, however it tends to shed all of its wool from the chest down. With wool demand decreasing worldwide, and shearing costs rising, this ends up becoming a good compromise as only the top portion of the sheep needs to be sheared. This also makes it easier for those diy sheep shearers who only keep a few dairy sheep for milk and can't see the benefit of paying a shearer to shear half an animal.
In the US the East Friesian and Lacaune are often crossed to produce mixed breed that generally produces less milk the the East Friesian Sheep but of higher quality, with higher fat and solids like the Lacaune Sheep milk. If you find either of these breeds in the US, you can be assured that they are generally some kind of mix anyway, dairy or non-dairy. Although people who are looking to proliferate the breeds, do keep track of breeding and have the higher percentage breeds. This mixed sheep breed can also have the same shedding pattern as the Lacaunes.
Awassi Sheep - The Awassi sheep is a dairy sheep breed that was developed in what is the now the Middle East. It is the predominant breed of dairy sheep in this region. it is a wool breed, that is horned and comes in a variety of colors. They tend to be hardier than the East Friesian or the Lacaune because they were developed in a much harsher environment that those two breeds of sheep. So they are also very efficient in converting feed to milk. The first embryos were imported to the US last year so they have been completely unavailable in the US until the first lambs hit the ground this Spring(2013) You can read more about them here and where to find breeding stock.
Assaf Sheep - The Assaf is a newer breed of sheep, developed around the 1950s in Israel. The Assaf is a dual-purpose breed of sheep, raised for both its milk and meat. The breed is actually a cross between the East Friesian and the Awassi and it has become the preferred breed of sheep over the Awassi in Israel, due to it;s superior milk production. One study shows that these sheep are capable of producing around 1.9 Liters a day over a 173 Day lactation. One Liter is equal to about one quart so the Assaf sheep will produce almost two quarts/ 1/2 gallon of sheep milk per day. As with the Awassi, the Assaf was not available in the US until this Spring(2013). Breeders of the Awassi are also offering Assaf and I suspect there will; be many farms in the coming years that will be breeding their own Assaf and Awassis and sheep milk grows in popularity in the United States.
Non-Dairy Sheep Breeds
Sometimes it is too difficult to find a dairy breed of sheep. In these cases, one can try raising a non-dairy breed for milk production. Milking sheep of a non-dairy variety won't be as productive as milking a dairy breed but it is a reasonable alternative if you are serious about milking sheep. One of the most important thing to look for in non-dairy breeds, is that breed's ability to nurse their young. Certain breeds are unable to care for twins or triplets because they do not provide enough milk for them. Shepherds must take these lambs from the mother and bottle feed them. These are not the type of sheep as aspiring dairy shepherd wants to have in their flock. Looks for breeds that have multiple lambs regularly and are able to easily feed those lambs without running out of milk.
There are a few breeds of meat or wool sheep that would also make good milking sheep. When raising meat sheep for milk one should note that not only will production be less per milking but also the length of the lactation will be much shorter than dairy specific breeds. It is difficult to get a milk sheep to produce milk for much more than 2 or 3 months after the ewe has lambed. Production drops off very sharply but if you are interested in milking sheep, it would not be a waste to milk these sort of breeds. In fact, I feel that it is a waste to not take advantage of the sheep's milk when raising lambs for meat. It's there so why not do something with it? Below are a few non-dairy breeds that might work for a small-scale dairy operation.
Icelandic Sheep - Icelandic Sheep, while not a dairy breed, are sometimes considered a triple-purpose breed of sheep. They are hardy sheep acclimated over hundreds of years in Iceland to the harsh winters of that country. They can survive very well on just pasture so they are not a high-maintainance breed and might make a good milking sheep for a beginner. Like the other non-dairy breeds listed here, it is important to remember that milk production within this breed can very greatly from one individual to the next. So keep this in mind when choosing.
Katahdin Sheep - This breed was developed in Maine and became a breed sometime around the 1950s. Like the Icelandic, it is a hardy breed, low maintenance and well -known to be parasite resistant. Unlike the Icelandic, however, these are hair sheep, which means they have no wool Instead they grow a thick layer of hair in the winter, which naturally sheds towards the end of spring. This sheep is a good choice for a non-dairy milking sheep because they regularly produce twins and triplets during lambing and they generally have no trouble feeding these lambs on their own. A katahdin Ewe with twins, can easily produce a 1/2 quart to a quart a day depending on the individual and how many times they are milked per day.
Finnsheep - Like Katahdins, these are recommended as an alternative dairy sheep because they are very prolific, producing multiples of offspring each lambing. In fact they are often cross bred to other breeds to increase the prolificacy of the crosses. There has been at least one case where a Finn Sheep ewe gave birth to 7 lambs. They are known to produce enough milk for their many lambs so they should be able to produce for you as well. This breed is a wool breed so, like the Icelandic sheep, they can offer meat, milk and wool. They are a small to medium sized breed so they would be easy to handle on the milking stand.